A recent video from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in which a group of fighters brag as they discuss enslaving women and selling them as if they were cattle begs once again the question about the group’s barbarism, from beheadings to using children as suicide bombers.
No women were shown in the video, but from what we know of this the organization, we can safely assume that what they are discussing has taken place. The difference between the Al-Qaeda of old and ISIS lies in this unabashed public declaration of crimes. Previous research revealed that many youthful recruits were motivated by opportunities for sexual gratification offered by joining militant groups, with many reports noting that fighters in jihadist camps engaged in temporary sexual relationships within the Islamic context. However, Al-Qaeda concealed this aspect of its fighters’ lives and presented them as jihadists loyal to their cause and preoccupied with fighting and praying.
Conversely, ISIS fighters are not ashamed to acknowledge exploiting women—whether they’re members of the group or captives—and they tend to publicly post information regarding this. They have often shown women being either enslaved as prisoners or as members and bearers of arms. These latter female fighters come from Central Asia, Europe and Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, and they brag about how some of them have succeeded in fleeing their homeland with their children to join the group.
Author Fadila Al-Jaffal has come to some interesting conclusions on this matter. She argues that sexual repression in Muslim communities is the foremost reason behind these terrorist organizations’ popularity. In her opinion: “ISIS’s ideology is inherently sexual; sex is a great promotional weapon. [ISIS] markets itself by exposing this self-indulgence, between bohemianism and [noble] acts committed under the cover of jihad.”
The discussion among the readers of Jaffal’s article reflects the controversy surrounding the phenomenon of ISIS and its strange practices. A critical reader wrote: “Fear God when you write . . . [So] these people sold their souls and left their homes, wives and luxurious lives to look for sex?!” Another reader responded: “No-one forced them to sell their families and souls . . . These [people] bring shame to the religion of Islam.”
But whether ISIS’s recruitment is based on carnal or religious motives and whether it simply reflects the nature of the organization’s members—mostly males under the age of 30—debauchery is clearly a weapon in its struggle today.
However, we must note that cheap thrills are available almost everywhere and can be bought at a fraction of the cost of traveling to Syria, so it is not just sexual desire that motivates people to travel to Al-Qaeda and ISIS camps. There is also the aspect of the religious rulings which sanction lust according to Shari’a law, as those who issue such fatwas allege.
ISIS is a group with a political agenda and it uses the women it has enslaved or those who have joined the group to promote itself. It thus markets these women as a reward for fighting within its ranks. This is one of the oldest and most efficient tricks in the art of marketing. The fact that a few hundred fighters came from Western, liberal societies does not mean such an approach is not needed, because those tasked with recruiting youths address each pool of potential recruits according to what appeals to it. For example, in Europe, they talk about the persecution of Muslims, while in Syria they promise youths freedom from the Assad regime and also voice doubt regarding the aims of other groups engaged in fighting there. In other countries, they talk about the women they have enslaved and the promise of virgins in paradise.
However, the weapon often backfires on its owner regardless of the motives behind the surge to join these groups. Revelations about ISIS’s use of sexual slavery will weaken its claims of being a group of pious Muslims fighting for justice and the oppressed.